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The secret world of the opera prompter

Secretly mouthing the singers' cues from a cramped, hidden box, the job of a prompter is often unfairly overlooked.

By Beata Bowes (Former Assistant Content Producer)

10 May 2017 at 11.28am | 16 Comments

During a performance, if you can take your eyes off the stellar singers and stagecraft, look a little closer. Very occasionally, hidden on the lip of the stage, peeping up from the orchestra pit, you might catch a glimpse of one of opera's most hidden (and to unfamiliar eyes, peculiar) features: the prompter's box.

It's a fairly thankless task, with a unforgiving job description: you must be prepared to spend up to five hours in a small, cramped box mouthing the words to an opera accompanied by constrained hand gestures. You'll have to delicately navigate the conductor's relationship with the singers. And you'll need to wear old clothes, as dust may be kicked in your face by the singers’ feet.

On the plus side, much like the fabled homeworkers who have Skype meetings in their underwear, your outfit is probably the least of your concerns: the singers only see a head and pair of hands popping up from the prompt box, which is recessed into the stage and is designed to be as subtle as possible. Despite this, the prompter’s box is often disliked by modern directors and designers whose concepts and set designs often don't allow for a hidden hatch. It is not feasible for operas with large orchestras – in fact, in a departure from 50 years ago when every performance was prompted, prompters at the Royal Opera House are a rarity, only used for occasional performances. They remain more commonplace in the US and mainland Europe.

It should also be noted that prompting is a potentially perilous pursuit. The opera world abounds with stories of the occupational hazards and humiliations endured by prompters. There was the time that one tenor tumbled into the prompter’s box during a performance and had to pull himself out using the stage curtain. Or when a prompter was so engrossed in the improvisation of the singers she was supposed to be prompting that she forgot to prompt – until she heard her name included in their improvised singing.

Potential hazards aside, the prompter's job sounds simple enough: to keep the singers in time. They use a combination of hand gestures and subtle sounds to provide the singers with cues.

But, of course, it's not as easy as that. Each prompter develops his or her own style which may include using an index finger pointing up to indicate flat pitch or a palm held up to stop. Although prompters don’t sing along audibly they may make a sound with their lips (like smooching the air) at key moments or say the first couple of words of key phrases with the implications of rhythm to help singers with entries.

Prompters are highly skilled musicians. To be successful in the role you need to know the opera inside out, have outstanding musicality, sense of tempo, timing, tact and a cool head in a crisis. Also fluency in Italian and other staple repertory languages is preferred. In fact, many young conductors use the prompter's box as a training ground for their future career, as both prompting and conductors use similar techniques.

'Prompting is something you have to do if you want to be a conductor', says up-and-coming conductor and former Jette Parker Young Artist Jonathan Santagada. 'It’s like conducting off-stage. If you want to be an opera conductor you need these skills in your bag. Otherwise you don’t understand the machine, because opera is so big and so complex. So it’s important to do these difficult jobs so that you’re ready.’

Prompters are involved in the whole rehearsal process to get to know the singers and learn the conductor’s interpretation of the music. It also gives them a chance to study the singers’ weakness so they can anticipate mistakes and coach accordingly. But as any prompter will tell you, if a singer hasn’t learnt their part properly no amount of prompting can save their performance.

Still, in many opera houses around the world, prompting is still a full-time position treasured by the people who do it. And despite the long hours and cramped conditions, it's easy to see why: ‘You build a special relationship with the singers because they trust you. It’s quite something', says Santagada. 'You laugh or cry along and ultimately feel part of the show.’

For a close-up, money-can't-buy view, the prompter's position is unrivalled: 'You can feel everything. It’s like being on stage. You can really hear the singers breathing, struggling, everything. It’s incredible', says Santagada.

And at the end of the performance, although they're not part of the curtain call, the prompter may be rewarded for their marathon stint in a cramped, dusty box with the ultimate acknowledgement: the reflected applause of the singer they've coached through the previous three or four hours. If they're lucky, they may receive a hint of subtle applause or a blown kiss – a fitting public acknowledgement of a true hidden talent.

By Beata Bowes (Former Assistant Content Producer)

10 May 2017 at 11.28am

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged Backstage, coach, conducting, conductor, Jette Parker Young Artists, jobs, Jonathan Santagada, Musician, opera, opera buffa, prompter, prompting, rehearsals, ROH, singers, stage, stage design, The Royal Opera

This article has 16 comments

  1. Regina responded on 10 May 2017 at 6:16pm Reply

    How interesting. Thanks for this article. Even though they are now seldom used at Covent Garden, do you have an image of a ROH prompter at work?

  2. Lucille responded on 11 May 2017 at 10:49am Reply

    Very interesting article. I've been to the opera many times but never before considered the role of the prompter or realised how critical they are to the production.

  3. David Smith responded on 11 May 2017 at 9:44pm Reply

    Yes, interesting. Now I have a better understanding of why the French word for 'prompter' is 'souffleur', literally a 'blower'.

  4. Mrs. Margaret Slade, OBE responded on 12 May 2017 at 12:14pm Reply

    This article is extremely interesting as it imparts information about one of the lesser know roles which contribute to a fine performance

  5. Christine Smith responded on 14 May 2017 at 10:56am Reply

    Really fascinating. Would love to know why less so in the UK and what has replaced the prompter?

  6. Levan Rotinov responded on 14 May 2017 at 4:25pm Reply

    I can only dream of this kind of job, though I am quite happy with my life-long profession (engineering). Opera is a great passion of my entire life; it induced me to learn languages, so I can speak both Italian and French, can read and understand German, and Russian is my native. But still it could only be a dream...

  7. Trevor Davis responded on 14 May 2017 at 6:34pm Reply

    I once saw Roberto Alagna at the Wiener Staatsoper, after singing the title role in Verdi's Don Carlo, publicly acknowledge the prompter to the extent of shaking his hand! I don't know whether that is normal over there. Yes, the prompter's hand actually emerged from the box. All that was lacking was the silver platter with the stage director's head on it... (No, that's not fair, it was quite a good production actually :-)

  8. Simon Willis responded on 18 May 2017 at 4:53pm Reply

    I vividly remember the small prompter' s box at Covent Garden which now seems, as the article suggests, to have disappeared . The prompts were inaudible from the Amphitheatre but could often be heard on Radio Three relays - particularly in the relatively quiet but verbally dense recitatives of Mozart operas and the like. It struck me as a highly skilled job at the time - plenty of egos to deal with and plenty of potential pitfalls. Who now gives the upward index finger of pitch correction - the conductor ? That's the sort of thing you see in Church choirs but with professionals ... Oh dear.

  9. David Hornby responded on 18 May 2017 at 4:56pm Reply

    Interesting piece - reminded me of some live recordings from the Met (and other places) where the prompter's voice is clearly audible. I, too, am wondering why the prompter' role has lessened at the ROH? Even if singers know their roles thoroughly, there must always be the possibility of a "mental blank" when they lose concentration.

  10. Peter Cleary responded on 18 May 2017 at 7:07pm Reply

    I can remember in the good old days (50+ years ago) being in the gallery when the chap next to me shouted "Silence the prompter".

  11. Paolo Ardisson responded on 18 May 2017 at 7:21pm Reply

    In italian we say "suggeritore"...as if in a. a..any suggestion? :) :)

  12. David Churchill responded on 18 May 2017 at 8:10pm Reply

    Simon Willis's comment on Radio 3 is so right - I remember a broadcast of The Trojans at ROH when the French-singing Dido was taken ill and a famous English soloist who only knew the opera in her native tongue took over. It sounded as if the prompter was positively shouting the "wrong language" prompts. But how I admire those both on and under the stage who can manage to get through an opera like this - thank goodness they are not all as long as the Berlioz!

  13. Missy responded on 19 May 2017 at 10:07pm Reply

    I think i'm missing the point of a prompter. Shouldn't they know their roles or know them enough to BS their way through their block. Dancers don't have a prompter...they miss a step and they just work through it and give us a small laugh when we notice. It sounds like an irritating thing to have to listen to while you're trying to watch the performers.

  14. Richard responded on 19 June 2017 at 5:32pm Reply

    Reminds me of the great mini-scene in Capriccio, where the prompter (M Taupe - Mr Mole) emerges from his box onto the empty stage and runs around looking for "Herr Direktor"

  15. Stephen Jay-Taylor responded on 21 June 2017 at 8:59am Reply

    O, I love this bit!

    "It is not feasible for operas with large orchestras – in fact, in a departure from 50 years ago when every performance was prompted, prompters at the Royal Opera House are a rarity, only used for occasional performances"

    Indeed so. They're the ones by Angela Gheorghiu.

  16. Matteo S responded on 25 June 2017 at 4:11pm Reply

    Well, a prompter could have been very useful during the first performance of Otello, since Cassio did not remember the second response to Iago's toast in act 1 (even if no reviewer seemed to notice it)

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